Life Personal Publishing


It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. It used to be such a large part of my life—and this blog used to be such a core part of my work and engagement with my community—that you’d think you’d never forget how to do it. I wrote here almost every day for well over a decade. It saw me through the first half of my working life, from Time Out to Brickhouse, London to America. It saw me through many of my most significant life events. And yet I’ve not done it for seven years. It feels odd. And forgotten how to do it, I think I sort of have.*

I’ve obviously been writing, don’t get me wrong! I’ve written many, many tweets in the last seven years. Around 150,000 of them, in fact, on pretty much every subject under the sun, although mostly (in recent years) #politics and #doctorwho. I’ve built up over 40,000 followers over that time, a number that I think I can get back down under a thousand if I continue to focus ardently on #politics and #doctorwho. This will have a certain circular irony to it since, if I’m honest, the ease of writing on Twitter is probably one of the reasons that I finally stopped blogging in the first place.

I’ve set up a few other Twitter accounts too. There’s @lovedsongs which publishes a list of every song I’ve given five stars to or loved on iTunes. And @houseofcoates which fairly aimlessly plugs away reporting the things that happen at my home. Just two of the many absurd things you can do with Twitter if you get bored.

I’ve also written a number of conference talks. Looking back at my dump of the old Lanyrd website, probably around thirty! Or at least maybe ten, each of which was delivered a few times. Writing those conference talks reminded me a lot of how it felt to write a decent blog post after ten years on the job. By that time I was no longer just knocking something out for fun to get a thought out of my head. I wanted them to be good. Really good. And so I wrote them to death, and focused in on them and really thought them through. Some of the conference talks I managed to write in less than one focused week of work. Some took almost a month. It had been getting that way with my blog posts by the end. And that, in a third ancillary and supportive nutshell, is yet another reason that I finally stopped blogging.

It might surprise some of you that I used to go outside. But if you don’t believe me, the conference talk I gave most recently was at the Mind The Product event in 2018. It was a keynote on the main stage at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. Get me. Main stage at Glastonbury. Crowds go wild. I three-dimensionally-rendered most of the slides using a focused brick of computronium. (I wrote that out longhand because “I 3d rendered” looked very strange indeed.) It took a really long time, and over-ran by ten full minutes. Everyone was very, very nice about it. I’m quite proud of the whole thing.

I also wrote a few things in other places over that time. I wrote a few things on Medium. I’m not sure why I chose to move to Medium, except I guess I thought it was a bit less embarrassing than writing a blog. I also thought I could just write something every so often and it might somehow find itself an audience without me having to write all the time to maintain people’s attention. Plus, of course, it makes what you write look gorgeous.

However, after roughly a decade of not writing regularly, I can testify that removing the pressure of regular content production did not make me produce fewer, higher quality thoughts, but just removed the impetus to write altogether. And that for the fourth time, is another reason why I stopped blogging.

I wrote a few things for more public spaces too. The most prominent of those was an opinion piece for NBC News that I guess I never actually billed them for (their payment system was appalling) so in principle, I guess I still own it. I might copy it over to this site in fact since they probably don’t hold the copyright. If you’re interested at all, it’s here: Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.

I should say a couple of things about that piece of writing before I move on – firstly, I didn’t write the headline. Mostly when you write things, the sub-editor writes the headline, and it is normally the distilled down and clickbaitiest possible version of what you actually might have meant. The second thing I’d like to say is that, you know, I still stand by it 85%. But, you know, when he started encouraging people to break the lockdown and go outside and give and spread disease to millions of Americans… Well, anyway.

But of course the main thing I’ve been doing over the last decade is building things. First at Yahoo, we built and launched Fire Eagle within Brickhouse and did a whole bunch of product innovation things, plus a couple of substantial but much less glamorous internal projects to do with location sharing and storage. Then after that projects like The Eatery with Aza Raskin, Up Coffee for Jawbone, projects for Nokia and Burner, doing consulting with Matt Biddulph at Product Club, then launching a better smart object UX with Thington (also built with Matt), sold to Eero a couple of years ago, followed by spending the last year and a half working on a completely decentralized alternative to Facebook and Twitter now known as Planetary.

I often find that when I’m working on something complicated my desire to write sort of dries up. I used to find these patterns where I’d spend chunks of time in strategic roles where I’d have to think a lot about an emerging subject in public, followed by times where I’d be focused on building and the writing would dry up. It’s a shame because I think the writing and the thinking helps you draw attention to the building, helps you engage people with the projects and keeps you a bit honest. It’s a good thing to think and work in public if you can do it. But for me, recently, for good or ill, it’s been mostly building and not very much writing for the last few years. And that, I suppose, is yet another reason why I stopped blogging.

So I guess the question of the moment is why have I started again? Why after seven+ years have I felt compelled to write just one more post? Is this the beginning of something more substantial?

There are probably two answers to this. The first one is purely practical. A few years ago someone managed to hack into my servers via an unpatched version of DBAdmin. And shortly after that, Google started reporting that there appeared to be content spam appearing in my blog. Shortly after that, my web host shut down access to any of my sites from outside, citing the presence of malware. And since I didn’t really know what they’d done and I didn’t have time to investigate it all thoroughly, over not very long at all every mark of my internet presence evaporated.

Which brings us to today, and this moment in time where we’re all reeling a bit from the world. A time that finds some of us trying to occupy our minds with something constructive. A moment where I finally had the time (and the desperate inclination) to back everything up and then completely purge my server, soup to nuts. And then gradually, piece at a time, when I get a moment, I’ve been putting it up online again.

Little fragments from my distant past are starting to emerge. Old fan sites like The Bomb. Weird creative projects from the past that I’m too embarrassed to link to. Websites made of many, many frames (ask your granddad). And of course, this blog. Over twenty years old, and filled with great swathes of my history. Looking at me blankly, using an off-the-shelf theme that conveys none of my feel or personality, with a little link that doesn’t blink but feels like it does saying only, “Add new post”. “Add new post.”

And hence the second answer to the question, why have I started again? Well, first up, I don’t know that I have. This could be the only new post I ever put up here. But if it is, it won’t be because I’m writing lots elsewhere. We live in a new time of isolation and fear. Twitter feels too urgent and anxious and tense right now. There’s no space to think or breathe. Facebook is filled with all the angst and pain and fury people are feeling. It’s overwhelming. Instagram is filled with people performing a perfect family lockdown experience interspersed with adverts for masks.

And suddenly, I find myself hearkening back to an earlier time of self-expression and community. The crowds have gone. There are no hordes of people waiting outside for a new post to emerge. There’s little to no pressure. Everyone’s not looking. It’s just the relics from an earlier era, posting periodically. And suddenly, maybe just for this one moment in time, that community is who I need. That community is who I miss. And talking to them in this kind of way feels right.

So I’m sorry that it’s long and vague and formless. I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten how to write … good*. I’m sorry that I haven’t posted for a very long time. But I’m here now, I have very little to say, and for some reason, goddam, I’m determined to say it.

So here’s to all you old people who still glance at blogs. Maybe this will turn up in your RSS feeds somehow. Maybe you’ll stumble upon it at some point in the future. Maybe you’ll never see it. That’s okay too. It’s not for an audience. It’s not for the attention. It’s just something I wanted to say, written down and pushed out the door to be stumbled upon by random people at some point. Just like it always was supposed to be, I guess.

It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. But it’s a good kind of weird. And I’ve missed it.

* The irony here is intentional. I haven’t written long pieces for a while. I can’t tell if you’re getting the jokes.

Design Personal Publishing Radio & Music Social Software

Visualising your listening…

I’ve been having enormous fun playing with Lastgraph over the last week or so. You tell it your username and it runs off and plots you a nice colourful graph that visualises your listening behaviour.

I’ve been with for a very long time (since 2003, when it was still really audioscrobbler) and have scrobbled a good 50,000 tracks. As a result, my graphs are pretty nice. You can get them visualised in various ways, but I would recommend using the ‘rainbow’ style and allowing it even to plot artists that you’ve only played once. That gives you the greatest detail and most beautiful results.

The most important thing about any visualisation is that it should give you another perspective on a dataset you already knew, and these graphs certainly do that. You really can get a sense of what kind of listener you’re dealing with. When you look at mine you’ll see a hell of a lot of thin lines. I listen to a lot of different artists, normally as part of ‘Most-played Five Star’ playlists and stuff like that. But alongside those classics there’s a decent and consistent injection of new albums and artists that are played more consistently. If you compared it with one of Cal’s graphs (download / pdf) at similar levels of detail then you’d see a very different picture. He listens to albums–only albums–and he listens to them over and over again until he gets bored of them. Then he sticks another album on. This is because he is from the past and hasn’t worked out that it’s all about disaggregation and stuff like that. Foolish boy.

The graphs that lastgraph generates are pretty enormous and full of detail, and because they’ve been generated as vectors, you could quite easily get one printed out onto canvas and put it up in your sitting room. I’m thinking about doing that now. I quite like the idea of decorating my home with beautiful infographics about my behaviour. When people visited they’d get all this extra easy-to-parse information about me, just as if I were a variety-sized packet of Fruit’n’Fibre. I’m a little concerned that it might seem self-involved, but not quite concerned enough not to do it. Perhaps we should make it obligatory for people to put up information on their electricity usage in their sitting rooms and see what impact that had on global warming.

If you want to see my whole graph then I’ve put up a decent-sized jpg of it that you can download and move around. It’s pretty beautiful and interesting, although I have no doubt your graph would be more interesting to you.

And if you’re interested in knowing more about the music that I’ve listened to over the last few years then my Overall charts on artists will reveal my love of Beck, Goldfrapp, The Arcade Fire, Nina Simone and Pixies. Meanwhile my most played tracks would reveal Goldfrapp’s Number 1 and Utopia, The MFA’s The Difference It Makes, Orbital’s Halcyon + On + On, Nouvelle Vague’s Friday Night, Saturday Morning among many others. It’s nice to be able to see the soundtrack of the last four years. I wonder what it’ll be like four years from now.

Books & Literature Net Culture Personal Publishing Social Software

On Andrew Keen…

Andrew Keen makes me furious but I don’t write about him as a rule. Why not? Because you don’t feed the trolls. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so clearly acting like a troll. I mean, you only have to read his post Etes-vous elitiste in which he declares that people have labelled him an anti-Christ and then uses that as a platform to sell his speaking gigs, while the right-hand column of his website lists all his media appearances. He wants to stir up an argument to get attention. We’re not supposed to enable behaviour like this in our children. We have to be firm. He must be placed on the naughty step.

Andrew is the chap who thinks that the whole internet is full of amateurish morons and that nothing rises to the top and that professional media has become corrupted and less good as a result of all this stuff. I could agree with his comments about mainstream media losing the plot if it didn’t seem to be quite the other way around. As far as I can see in the US at least, mainstream news became about entertainment way before the bloggers came along, there’s lots of money in cinema still and Harry Potter sells by the ton. I watched a TV programme about how in the US they sold Life on Earth as basically animal on animal bestial snuff movies. Presumably also the effect of the nascent internet, even if about four people in the world were using it back then. And clearly the blunt utility of Wikipedia counts for nothing, the beautiful pictures in Flickr aren’t worth looking at, Keen’s own blog presumably yet another indication of how low you now have to stoop to make an impact in the world rather than something we should celebrate – another citizen gets to express their opinion and try and persuade the world he’s right.

The thing is about this, all this conversation is a total waste of time. I don’t understand why he gets the traction he does. I mean, what is he actually trying to accomplish? Does he think that the millions of bloggers will get bored and go home if he explains why their voices don’t count? Does he think that Wikipedia will stop being useful to people (even with its inaccuracies) or YouTube will stop being entertaining? No, of course he doesn’t. He can’t honestly think he can accomplish anything. The future comes, for good or ill, whether you like it or not. The best you can do in such a situation is try and work to fix the issues you see. No market for decent commentary and opinion? Look for a business model that could support it! No way that Encyclopedia Britannica can compete with Wikipedia? Well then why not move some of the resourcing of Britannica towards creating a trusted version of Wikipedia? Check articles every so often for factual accuracy, pull them aside and enhance them and make that your business.

The world we have as a result of technologies of the internet is not a world I find particularly troubling, because it’s a world finding its feet and its a world that has also created significant beauty. It’s a world I feel comfortable in, and there is always a market for what people want and often for what people need. I don’t doubt that journalism will survive or resurge but it will have to adapt.

People like Keen are professional complainers, stirring up fights, decrying the state of the world that we find ourselves in without facing the fact that it is where we are and wishing won’t make it not so. If you don’t like the way the world is, then use the tools that exist and push them further and find a way to compensate for the problems that you think the existing technology has created. I’m afraid it’s a clich√© but it’s true. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The world we have is the world we can work with, and anyone wanting to push it back to the fifties will fail.

And that’s what really gets to me. Because it’s pretty clear that he knows this. He’s writing his own bloody blog for a start. He knows he can’t win the battle, but he’s put himself on the side of respectability, trustworthiness, reliability and is decrying all the terrible new things in the world. As I once said of Nick Carr, this is a brilliant strategy to make yourself like a terribly intelligent and responsible, serious person without actually having to go to any of the trouble of thinking. That’s why he’s a troll – because his opinion cannot do any good, cannot change anything for the better, but in its decrying of the nascent environment of millions of people finding their voices for the first time, he can get nothing but attention, media coverage and book-sales. It’s not an appeal to better standards, it’s not an appeal to quality or tradition. It has no aspirations to honour. It’s disingenuous to the core, manipulative of the people, anti-progressive, cynical and hypocritical.

Advertising Journalism Personal Publishing Public Relations

This is not a brothel…

As has probably become clear recently, I’m currently not particularly well-inclined towards people who work in public relations – particularly the particularly unscrupulous ones that spam me with press releases and work ardently to try and persuade me to talk about their products or services on my site.

They don’t seem to understand that I find it objectionable that they would consider me a platform for them to sell their wares. Nor do they understand that I could consider it even more irritating still that for the most part they haven’t got the slightest idea what things I write or care about. They consider my personal voice a commodity to be acquired, along with what little credibility and authenticity I have. This–I’m afraid–just pisses me off.

It may seem like a trivial thing to get angry about, but you’d be surprised the pressure that you can receive to deform what you write to serve other people’s best interests. And it needs to be said, quite apart from my own personal irritation with these people, they are actively trying every day to commandeer the conversations that you are having out there by fair means or foul to serve their needs more effectively. They do it by offering perks, holding or withholding access to people or things and by making people feel privileged by giving them gifts or treats.

For those reasons I’ve made every effort through the last few years to never be beholden to anyone, even to not allow myself to get in the kind of position where I might be unsure of my own motives. But this doesn’t seem to be enough to get the message across, so in a fit of irritation the other day, I wrote a pretty angry and frustrated post on my Flickr stream associated with the picture that opens this article.

In the post I stated that for as long as I have it up, will never contain anything that someone has tried to persuade me to write about. This applies equally to PR people, to marketing people or to my employer. I will write about any company or business (including the one I work for) only when I think there’s something genuinely of interest to talk about. I will only write about my employer when I’m proud of something they have done (or I have done with them) or when I really feel I have something to say. And I will absolutely never talk about something that I hear about through a press release, or as a consequence of someone giving me a freebie.

Of course, I’m not trying to talk for everyone with a blog out there. There are a lot of semi-pro bloggers out there who operate much like journalists and have good relationships with PR people. Their sites are treated like a job, and any access they can get to these organisations can help them do that job. So good luck to them. But they ask for these press releases. They encourage this contact. They make it clear that they’d like to receive them. I have to say that posts from Guy Kawasaki (encouraging the giving of schwag and compliments to bloggers to butter them up) and Paul Stamatiou (pitching for freebies and flights) make me (and Jeremy Zawodny) slightly queasy, but as long as these particular pundits don’t try and talk for the rest of us then I have no problem with them making it clear that they’re interested in receiving press releases. However, that doesn’t apply to me.

As far as I’m concerned, an unsolicited press release is quite literally no better than spam. It is an e-mail that arrives in my Inbox, trying to sell me something. In fact it’s worse than spam, because it actively seeks to persuade me–sometimes bribe me–to sell something on their behalf! Can you imagine how affronted you were if your Viagra spam not only tried to persuade you that you were impotent and in need of assistance but also wanted you to sell it to your friends? What kind of person would you be if you took up the opportunity to bring up sexual problems at every party you subsequently attended? That’s the kind of person that PR people seem to think I am.

I’m going to be putting up a page on my site soon for people who want to send me press releases, and it’s going to say all of this on it. Hopefully people will start to get the message that–for me at least–their attentions just simply aren’t wanted. If you feel the same way, then perhaps it’s time to let them know in public that your culture isn’t here for the benefit of their clients and that your voice is not for sale.

Location Mobile Personal Publishing

Geotagging with Zonetag and Bluetooth GPS…

Disclaimer (added 3:15pm): Obviously I work at Yahoo and obviously I know the people who work on Flickr and Zonetag personally. Other clients for uploading information from your phone and capturing context do exist and if you’re interested in finding out more about them then I can recommend reading Chris Heathcote’s post on the subject.

A few weeks ago Flickr released its new mapping features, enabling its users to easily ‘geotag’ their photos. The interface they have created is extraordinarily simple and elegant. A drawer at the bottom of the Organizer contains your photos, the space above contains a navigable and explorable map. Drag one of the former onto the latter and you’re done.

But what if there was a way to automatically geotag your photos as you were taking them and with an accuracy of a few metres? What if the same tool also let you upload your photos while you were walking around town and could also provide you with good privacy options and tag suggestions? When you spotted a nice bit of graffiti or a book about superheroes, you’d be able to take a picture on the spot and have people in the area see it on the map within moments. Just like this:

I took this photo in my last trip to the US with my camphone and with just two rapid keystrokes it was being uploaded to the Internet complete with all the information needed to position it almost perfectly within the world. To get it online I used the prototype Zonetag client made by Yahoo Research Berkeley in conjunction with a portable Bluetooth GPS unit that I bought for ¬£70 down the road. This combination of whatsits has made geotagging photographs in the wild absolutely effortless for me, and only took me ten minutes to set up. And no additional costs! It’s all enormously good fun.

Which made me think thatgiven how much I use this stuff and how few other people I’ve met who know about itthis might be a suitable subject for a comprehensive online how-to guide. Which brings me to this article.

Over the next few paragraphs I’m going to work through the whole process of installing and using Zonetag and getting it working with a portable Bluetooth GPS device from beginning to end. You’ll need a Nokia Series 60 mobile phone (more information on the specific makes below), a Bluetooth GPS unit (I’ll recommend one further down the page) and the time to install the (free) Zonetag client. If you’ve got all of these things, it shouldn’t take more than five or ten minutes to get you set up and geotagging your first photos in the wild. But I’m not going to skip through any part of the process so don’t worry. What’s below is every step in totally ludicrous and laborious detail. That way no one will have the excuse of getting lost along the way.

This how-to comprises four sections. The first part is about Which phones you can use with Zonetag, the second about How to install Zonetag and some of the common break-points, the third about How to use Zonetag and get the most of its functionality and the final one is How to get Zonetag working with an external bluetooth GPS device. If you’ve already got a version of Zonetag installed, then you can cheerfully skip straight to the fourth section right now.

Stage One: Which phones can you use with Zonetag?
The first thing you’ll need to be using a Nokia Series 60 phone. I’d recommend using specifically one of the following: the 6620, 6670, 6680, 6681, 6682, 7610, N70 or N90 models. The really new Nokia phones running the third edition of the Series 60 software are still being evaluated for use, I’m afraid. There have been some significant changes to the security model which makes rapid prototyping a bit harder. I use the N70, which has relatively slow UI and is a bit big but is otherwise completely functional and handles this whole process really well.

Picture of an N70 running Zonetag

Stage Two: How to install Zonetag and some of the common break-points:
Installing Zonetag on the phone is the next step and is relatively painless. It does not require you to have transitioned your Flickr account over to a Yahoo ID. You will however need a Yahoo ID to use the service. The one you use for Yahoo! Mail will do quite nicely.

I’m going to go through the whole thing in detail in a second butjust so you don’t get overly intimidatedI thought I’d summarise the whole process first so you can see how simple it will be. To get Zonetag installed all you will have to do is:

  • Click on “Install” on the Zonetag site and type in your name and e-mail, and then click “Agree” to the terms and conditions
  • When prompted, click the button to log into Flickr and to say that you’re comfortable with Flickr and Zonetag talking to one another
  • Download the Zonetag client onto the phone and let it install itself
  • Copy your personal authorisation number from the website into the phone to make sure they know they’re allowed to talk to each other

As I’ve said, it’s all pretty painless, but there are some special cases and some places you can get stuck, so I’ll go through each of those now in a bit more detail. The first part of the process is to visit the Zonetag site and click upon ‘Install’ at the top of the page. You’ll be presented with a page that warns you that Zonetag will keep a record of details of the particular cellphone tower that your phone was using when it took a picture. The zonetag client uses this information to suggest useful tags for you when you take a picture, and – if you want – can display this information in your Flickr tags for your photos. You can turn this feature off later if you want.

On this screen put in your first and last name and your e-mail address, tick the terms of use and click on ‘I Agree’ at the bottom of the page.

The next page presents you with an even easier job, particularly if you’ve got already got a Flickr account. Click on the ‘Authorize’ button at the bottom of the page and you’ll be sent off to a page on Flickr where you will be asked if you’re comfortable with the two sites talking to each other. Say yes and move on!

The next stage is where a lot of people come unstuck and it’s normally to do with the defaults on your phone rather than anything with Zonetag itself. So at this stage, I’d recommend checking that your phone is ready to install the application and won’t just reject it out of hand. To check these settings go to your phone and look for a folder called ‘Tools’ in your main menu. Inside that folder look for the ‘Application Manager’ or ‘Manager’ icon. I’ve put a picture below so you can see what menu options you’re looking for:

Once you’ve found the Application Manager, click on it, select ‘options’ and ‘settings’ and you’ll be presented with a menu upon which the first option is ‘Software Installation’. This has three options – install all software, install only signed software and install no software. Make sure that ‘install all software’ is selected. If it is, you’re now ready to continue with the installation process.

If you’re based in the US, the Zonetag site (on the page you should still be on) has a feature that allows them to send you a text message with a link to the application inside it. Tell the site your number, and click on the link in the SMS that you receive. Your phone will go online and get the application and ask if you want to install it. Say yes and you’re done.

If you’re not based in the US, then the easiest option is probably to download the application from this URL: via your phones web browser. Again it’ll ask if you want to install the application. Say yes to finish the process.

Once you’ve finished installing the software on the phone, there’s just one final stage. So click to get your authorisation code on the web site, and then on your phone navigate to the Zonetag application (on my N70 it’s placed in a folder called ‘My Own’ in the main menu) and then click on the application to launch it. The first time you activate it, it’ll ask you which data connection you want to use to send your photos and data to the service. Once you’ve chosen one, the software will prompt you for your authorisation code. Type the code that the website shows you into the phone and Zonetag has been installed.

NB. At some later point, you should go back to Application Manager and make sure that your phone is set only to install signed applications again. This helps to protect your from viruses and malware. You don’t have to do this quite yet if you’d rather get on.

Stage Three: How to use Zonetag and get the most of its functionality:
Okay. So you’ve installed Zonetag – what’s that got you so far? You should have just entered in your authorisation code, so you’ll still be using the Zonetag app. You’ll notice that there’s a button called ‘back’. If you click on that, the application will continue running on your phone in the background and be ready to do your bidding at any time. Click ‘back’ now. If you want to go back to Zonetag at any time you can navigate back to it through the folder called ‘My Own’ orand this is a cunning Nokia trick you might not knowyou can press and hold the button on your keypad which looks like a black circle and a white square caught in an existential vortex. That’ll bring up the application switcher. If you want to have a play with that now, then do so, although it won’t get you very much.

Now take a picture with your phone. Almost immediately after you’ve taken the photo a small dialogue box will appear asking you if you want to send the photo to Flickr. If you say no, it’ll just disappear. If you say yes, your phone will take you to a screen where – if you want – you can add tags, or change your default options or add a title. If you don’t want to do any of that, you can click on ‘upload’ and you’re done. Your phone will start uploading the photo to the Zonetag servers and then after a few minutes it’ll send the picture invisibly up to Flickr. In and of itself, I find that point, click, upload process pretty useful.

But it’s worth exploring those things in a bit more detail. If when you take a picture you click on the ‘add tags’ button, Zonetag will present you with a whole list of things it thinks might be relevant to where you are in the world, things that it has worked out from the number of the cellphone tower you’re in. Navigate up and down this list and click on the ones you think are relevant and click done when you’re finished and you’ll have tagged your photo in the wild.

If you really want to be hardcore, when you’re exploring the suggested tags, click left and right to bring up whole new catagories of tags including things you’ve used before, nearby venue names and events in your area. It’s all designed to make it as easy as possible for you to add useful information about your photos while you’re out and about.

There are also Action tags which can do a bunch of things including rotate your photos before they get to Flickr. It’s all quite smart. And if you’re interested you can also change your privacy options on the picture so that your mother doesn’t see all the dodgy things you’ve been up to. Having been to the Folsom Street Fair a couple of weeks ago, I can very much recommend using this option.

Stage Four: Using a GPS unit with Zonetag:
Okay, so you’re all set up and familiar with Zonetag, now how do you get it working with an external GPS device. This isfranklyludicrously simple although there is one annoying thing: first you have to go out and buy a Bluetooth GPS unit.

I’ve so far tried two of these – both bought from Tottenham Court Road in London, but also available online in the UK and US. The Holux device that I wrote about a few months ago was pretty exciting, small and accurate, could use a standard Nokia charger or plug into your computer via mini USB which was extremely useful in terms of keeping down the number of cables and stuff I had to carry around. But I’m not entirely sure after a block of time using it that I’d recommend it. The GPS functionality is pretty solid, but the Bluetooth stuff is not. I’d often find that when I started it up the Bluetooth just didn’t come online. If you look on the web you’ll find some people recommending that you keep it in the freezer. Apparently this helps it work better. I’m not sure that’s really the kind of way I want to live my life, and also it would be cold in my pocket so I’ve explored elsewhere and found one that works a bit more effectively.

Of the two I’ve used, I’d definitely recommend this one – the GlobalSat BT-338. It’s a little larger than the Holux and a little heavier as well, but it’s still pretty tiny (see the pictures below to get some sense of scale). It uses a non-mobile-phone charger and can’t use USB, but it has a staggering 18 hour battery life and it basically just bloody works. I’ve got better GPS accuracy than the Holux, it works in worse conditions and I’ve never had any trouble whatsoever with the Bluetooth. You can buy it from or from or from good nerdy shops.

Right, let’s assume you’ve got your GPS unit. Let’s have a look at it quickly and see what’s going on. Most of these devices (at least the screenless ones) have nothing on them but an on/off button and three lights. The top light tells you about the battery life of the device, and will glow red if the battery is low. The bottom one is normally blue and indicates if there’s any bluetooth activity going on – ie. if your GPS is communicating with another device. The middle light is the most interesting. Turn on your GPS unit and go and stand outside for a few moments. The light will start off solid and green and after a few seconds will start to blink and flash. This means that it’s worked out its position by using satellites in orbit and now knows where it is in the world down to a few metres and it’s desperate to share that information one way or another. Literally, to get this device working all you have to do is turn it on and stand outside for a bit.

If you’re interested in how it’s all happening, then Wikipedia has a reasonably good page on GPS but as far as I can tell it basically works by picking up radio signals from a number of satellites and working out the delay between when they were sent and when they were received. This allows the device to determine its distance from each of the satellites. The radio signal also includes information about the satellite’s current position, which allows the little GPS unit to triangulate its position anywhere in the world to within 15 metres.

Because the radio signals can’t pass easily through buildings, you’ll get a better signal when you’re out in the open in a place without too many very tall buildings around you, but some of the newer GPS units even seem to be able to maintain a positional lock inside buildings (if you’re relatively close to a wall or on the upper floors of a building. I’ve been very impressed indeed with the Globalsat on this front.

So you’ve got a functioning GPS device and a functioning version of Zonetag. You’re on the home stretch. It’s almost all done. Your final act is to combine the two. So start up Zonetag and click on ‘Options’. Now scroll down until you see ‘External GPS’ and hit start. Your phone will start to look for Bluetooth devices in the neighbourhood. When if finds your GPS device, select it. If your phone prompts you for a pairing code for your GPS device (this should only ever happen once) then try 0000 if you’re using the GlobalStat and then do a search online for your model number if that doesn’t work.

If all this goes to plan, Zonetag will attempt to connect to your GPS unit and will then start spontaneously displaying the data that the GPS device has about your location. From now on whenever you take a picture using the camphone and tell Zonetag to upload it, the photo will appear immediately on Flickr complete with all the geo information you could possibly want – maps and everything! Enjoy!

Let’s repeat that, just in case you missed it. Turn on your GPS device, turn on your phone and start Zonetag. Tell Zonetag to look for a GPS unit and when it’s found yours tell it to connect. Take a picture, say yes to the upload process and you’ve just uploaded and geotagged your first photo in the wild! Well done!

Anyway, that’s the end of my huge tutorial on every aspect of automatically geotagging photos with your phone. I hope you’ve found it useful and get as much fun from wandering around the place taking pictures of places and sticking them online as I have done. I really can’t recommend playing with this stuff enough. And once you’ve got yourself a GPS device there are all manner of other things you can start to do with it, including installing map software on the phone and contributing to Open Streetmap. But in the meantime start exploring the other photos that people have uploaded from their phones over on Flickr Maps: Photos tagged Zonetag on Flickr Maps. Here are some of my favourites.

Conference Notes Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

Terahertz waves vs. Alexaholics… (FOO '06)

Wrapping up my coverage of FOO sessions, I just thought I should probably mention the two last I attended, even though I don’t have so much to directly say about them. I’ve got one more post to come though, so don’t get your hopes up. No one gets out of here without hearing about the Space Invaders.

One session that I found astonishingly awesome, but honestly don’t know if I really understood 1/100th of, was on Terahertz waves and imaging and was presented by a guy who used to grow diamonds for NASA. He has since moved on to trying to build a small super-hi-tech terahertz whatsit that he plans to use for everything from building a tricoder to heating up collagen beneath the skin and smoothing wrinkles. His talk was … hard … for a non-scientist, and it probably says something about it that the things my brain caught upon were the beautiful silver wavers with tiny grooves upon them that clearly fulfil some purpose that I was unable to focus upon. It was a talk useful for putting the rest of the talks in perspective I suppose – and maybe reminding you of your limited place in the world – if nothing else. Humbling.

The final talk I went to of the weekend was presented by Ron Hornbaker of Alexaholic. Alexaholic is a service that uses data from Alexa’s traffic rankings and provides ways of interpreting it. It was an unusually well-attended session, with Stewart Butterfield from Flickr and Joshua Schachter from both in attendenace. According to Ron, Tim O’Reilly is also an enormous fan of Alexaholic and uses it to observe trends in the market. Stewart and Joshua are clearly both well versed in tracking what’s going on in the market through Alexa as well – all commenting on a recent upsurge in Web 2.0 properties that was apparently more of a consequence of the removal of spammers than an unusual upspike in their respective traffics (which continue to grow quite solidly). They particularly commented upon Seth Godin’s List of Web 2.0 properties and their respective rankings. Tim O’Reilly apparently arguing that the removal of sites like Google from the list missed out on the ‘harnessing collective intelligence’ aspect of the emerging ecosystem. It was a pretty interesting session, and the product will – I think – get more interesting still when you’re able to assemble your own list of sites to track regularly which was mentioned as the next stage in functionality for the site.

Right then. That’s the sessions all done. You’ve got one more post to endure about FOO, and it’s a fun one – it’s about all the extraneous activities and projects and installations around the place that I experienced, and I’ll be putting it up tomorrow. Thanks for bearing with me through this long series of posts. Next week – San Francisco and the Future of Web Apps. But for now, sayonara!

Personal Publishing

On Ethical Weblogging (Part Two)

One of the issues I agonise most around on this site are the ethics of weblogging – what I feel is acceptable behaviour and what I don’t. I’ve written about it briefly before a few years ago, but I’ve never written anything down or abstracted it out particularly successfully. I’ve got a few things that seem to me to be solid. For example, I don’t feel a particular responsibility to always be right, or to only write things that I know to be true, but I do feel a responsibility not to write things that I know are false. I’m also pretty clear that if I write something and then discover that it’s not true, I should add a note to the post concerned saying that I discovered it wasn’t true but that I should also write a new post pointing to the fact that I’ve discovered I was wrong. I waver a bit on that stuff and make value judgements on how significant an error has to be before it gets a new post about it, which is probably a bit woolly, but then this is about a set of personal ethics rather than absolute truth.

Another area that I’m pretty clear on is editing posts that you’ve written. I have absolutely no problem going back and correcting grammar, spelling or even reworking sentences after the fact to make them read more effectively. Some people are concerned about that stuff. I am not. I’m also quite comfortable with adding addenda to the posts concerned after the fact – as long as I date the addenda separately and make sure it’s clear that they’re additions. I’m genuinely committed, however, to keeping the substantive parts of a post the same – and that concerns when I’ve made a mistake, or when I’ve regretted saying something or whatever. If I regret writing something, I’ll add an addendum to that effect, but I won’t take it down – that misrepresents the discourse, distorts the discussion one way or another. People may already have linked to the post concerned with their opinions on what I said originally. Changing that substantive part cheats and seems to me to not take adequate responsibility for what you’ve written. There is one set of exceptions, I think, and that’s where I’ve written something that could cause significant and unjustified harm to people (normally other than myself) simply by its presence in the world. Publishing other people’s addresses, for example, is clumsy and irresponsible and I’ve done it once and it was clearly right to remove it. In those rare circumstances I add an addendum noting the change and apologising. That seems reasonable.

The final area that I tend to worry about, and the one that’s causing me most angst today, concerns freebies, gifts and advertising. I sort of roam around this territory one way or another, trying to steer a reasonably ethical course. I don’t take advertising at the moment because I think it distorts your voice and makes you seem slightly for sale. I think this is much more true of formal advertising structures rather than YPN/Adsense-like structures, because in the latter case there’s much less imperative to be careful what you’re saying for fear of aggravating advertisers. So I tend to prefer that stuff. I can imagine taking advertising in the future – I don’t believe it to be evil, I just think it has the capacity to be troubling.

Freebies cause me similar concern. PR companies have twigged to the fact that getting their products in front of webloggers can result in them getting their products all grassrootedly in front of real people who might like them. So many webloggers I know get offered free things and get treated differently in particular circumstances so that they will write nice things or be generally most positive to organisations or products. This is known in the business as influencer marketing and for the most part I find it a bit troubling. If you’re operating as a peer in a peer-based environment then it seems to me that you should basically be trustworthy and that has to mean that you have to make it clear that you’re not for sale. This is why I have never posted anything on my site that I have been asked to by an employer and why I never would. I’ll talk about things that my employers do when they’re great and exciting, and of course working for them means that you’re exposed to more of the great and exciting things that they do, but if they ask me to do it directly, I refuse on principle.

The freebies thing is where I tend to be most uncomfortable. Many people don’t worry about this territory at all – particularly ex-journalists who have become inured to the idea of receiving testable products. Other people are comfortable with the idea of simply sticking a disclaimer on any post that involves a product that they’ve received for free. I’m not sure what I think about these approaches. Clearly, any demo product that I’m sent can’t compromise me in my business dealings, so that’s a concern and one I take very seriously, but given that I’m a maker rather than a broker or dealer those concerns don’t really seem to come up an enormous amount (also people often want to send me novels which isn’t really going to affect Yahoo! enormously). It’s the stuff concerned with editorial integrity that worries me more.

My current rule of thumb is as follows – if someone wants to send me something I will make it clear that on general principle I will not talk about the thing they send me on my site. If it’s an object I was going to buy anyway, I’ll actually go and buy it instead so as to allow myself to comfortably write it without feeling ‘for sale’. But generally if I am sent something for free I will not talk about it at all. If they know this and still want to send the thing to me, then that’s up to them. I have put off a bunch of PR people in this way over the last year or so, but it’s seemed to keep me relatively free from angst which is the main thing.

That’s not to say that it’s right in every case – I feel a bit differently about things that come from small companies or start-ups that I believe in, and there have been a few times when I’ve felt so comfortable with my positive or negative feelings that I’ve felt okay talking about the product concerned (obviously with a disclaimer) – but generally no talking about PR-sent products seems to work pretty well for me. Of course, if larger companies send me things anyway I might be more predisposed to write favourably about their other products, so I’m going to make a commitment that for anything that I’m sent above a few dollars I’m going to disclose it immediately on my site one way or another. I’m not going to talk about the products themselves – that would rather miss the point – but I will make it clear that the company in question has sent me some stuff and every time I talk about that company for a while afterwards I’ll repeat the disclaimer so people can evaluate how reliable I’m being. Does that sound fair?

I’d be interested in people’s thoughts – How do you handle corrections? How do you reconcile advertising with truth? What are your principles about editing your own posts? What responsibilities do you feel you have towards truth? Or are you more interested in persuading people for the common good, even if you have to do so by dubious means? And how about those territories that I haven’t even touched on – like how you treat people who comment on your site and whether it’s okay to delete people who don’t agree with you, or are abusive? Any thoughts?

Design Net Culture Personal Publishing

On Carbonmade…

There’s a site that I keep coming back to because it’s so simple and well-constructed, and yet also represents so many of the visual and interface design principles of the current zeitgeist. It’s a site that has design smarts massively in excess of what would normally be necessary for a utility of its size and scope and needs of its users singularly well. It’s a site that I find myself returning to again and again for inspiration when I’m thinking about other projects. The site is

Carbonmade Homepage

The service is simple – this is not a complex web app. It’s a place where designers and artists can come to quickly set up a really simple, clean and elegant online portfolio. It’s got a few problems around the place which I’ll come to later, but right now I want to concentrate on the great things about it and how generally well it’s been assembled.

It is, as must be clear from first impressions, drenched in the current design tropes of Web 2.0 – the fonts are large and there are gradient fills all over the place, but it’s all done with rather more character and personality than many other sites and introduces a few innovations along the way. This is a truly elegant riff on the current thinking, rather than a slavish copy.

Let’s start at the beginning – the character of the designer is the heart of the enterprise, and how to represent them and their work in the best possible way. Hence the cute, but not overly cartoonish character of the designer presented in front of an expressive green spray of look-at-me-ness. The whole site is already really there in that image – along with the six words that dominate the front page, “Sign up for your free portfolio”. Add the tagline, “Show off your work,” and you’ve just communicated the whole purpose of the enterprise in about three seconds of visual parsing time. If you’re a designer or an artist, you now know what the site is for:

The first thing you’re pushed towards doing on the homepage is to either play with the demo portfolio or start your own. The demo is a really solid idea – there’s no risk in misrepresenting someone else, no half-botched effort that other people can look at and mock you for. So if you’re a little unsure about this interweb thing, then you can play quickly and try it out with no risks. And I don’t doubt that – for the most part – sticking the demo up there has really paid off for them in the past, because the interface is incredibly simple – you basically create a project and then add things to it – using large, clear and open interface elements on large blank spaces. There’s no visual complexity. No confusion. No swathes of threatening buttons or navigational options. It’s all relatively simple. There are a couple of minor things I’d resist in that interface, I think. But they’re few and easy to fix and will probably condense themselves a little bit in some time.

Once you’ve got your pictures onto the page you can specify some very basic design attributes to help you define what your portfolio will look like. You can choose whether there will be text displayed on top of the thumbnails; whether you’ll get one, two or three thumbnails in a row on your front page; whether the background should be white or black; and whether it should use serif or san serif fonts. All through the process, mostly successfully, they’ve looked to see which of the Ajaxy or DHTMLish design elements would give you the feedback to know that something’s happening behind the scenes. They’ve also made elements of the UI discoverable, like the ability to reorder photos. You don’t need to use it, but eventually you’ll twig and it’ll be there wait for you. There is no rotate feature. There is no group functionality. There is little or no metadata. This is an experiment in creating super-elegant UI for a niche audience with a simple function to perform and when it works it works beautifully.

I think my favourite part of the site is the portfolio-browsing section. The porfolios themselves are pretty self-contained entities. There would be little reason for a client to want to know how you were presenting your work, so carbonmade restrict themselves to a small link at the bottom of each portfolio page directing you back to their core site. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the portfolios in the other direction – they maintain an index of all of the collections people have made, along with interesting ways of exploring them. There’s enough design inspiration in there already to last a couple of months. And they’ve done a really beautiful job in making all the work within the site look exciting and interesting. Have a look at their featured portfolio index page:

The whole thing feels tremendously immersive and exploratory and interesting – but more specifically, while the pages aren’t necessarily particularly light, the HTML is mostly solid and decent and degradable. As I said earlier, it’s not perfect, but it’s bloody good. And fun. And cool. And engaging.

The porfolios themselves are slight and elegant things which really let the artworks of the people concerned shine through. They constitute nothing more than an index page which lists the projects with a thumbnail, a page for each project with a Flash gallery upon it that you can use to scroll backwards and forwards through the pictures in that section and a page where you can talk a little about yourself as the creator of the galleries. This is no Flickr – it has no need to be. Here’s an example porfolio:

It’s literally an online portfolio in the sense that the background is as generic a property as the large leather presentation cases that graphic designers take with them when they’re trying to get work.

Anyway, I said there were problems with the site, and there are. Not all the interface elements are quite as self-explanatory as perhaps they might be, some of the exploratory sections feel a bit hidden as you’re encouraged quite forcibly to sign up and start using the, the portfolios have some odd navigation options that hide how you get back to the homepage and – my main issue – the individual images within each gallery tend not to be linkable. Because of the Flash elements you have to link to a project rather than an individual picture. But these are all fixable.

And in the meantime, I’m really getting something off the aesthetic and the scale of the thing – the expressiveness of the interface and the way in which it has made itself into a place that both has a personality but also has the class to get out of the way when it’s showing other people’s work. I think it will define as many of the next stage design tropes as it has stolen from the current ones and is well worth keeping an eye on…

Personal Publishing Technology

On Robert Scoble and the BBC…

Let me be clear – I’ve met Robert Scoble and he’s a decent man, and I think the impact of his weblog on the public perception of Microsoft has been significant, surprising and actually pretty important. But this front-page of the BBC News Technology section is simply ludicrous. It’s absurd. I’m fairly sure that Robert knows it and would be embarrassed by the way it’s being represented, but really the people who ought to be more embarrassed are BBC News, who do a hell of a lot of good in the world, but have really plumbed a new low here:

I somehow doubt that Bill Gates is going to be bleeding internally at this news, and suggesting he would completely distorts the story. Readers are supposed to be able to trust their media sources to help them determine what’s really important in the world. Or at least that’s the BBC’s job, surely? Very disappointing.

More generally, good luck to Robert and I hope the new job is as interesting and rewarding as it seems his last one was. Couldn’t happen to a nicer chap.

Advertising Net Culture Personal Publishing Technology

What has been killing my server?

Today I was at work when Barbelith went down. MySQL errors everywhere, the community in uproar, IMs and e-mails. And it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to do. So I explore in more depth. First step, see what’s actually happening on the server – so I launch Terminal, ssh in to the Barbelith Superserver over at Pair, find the directory with my logs in and type in tail -f access-log. Immediately, I see each request coming into the server in roughly real-time, scrolling down the page like I’m looking at The Matrix. Unix is not my strong-point, so thanks to Simon for that little trick. It’s moving too fast for me visually get a grasp on what’s going on, but I start seeing some recurrent patterns after a minute or so – HTTrack, which I do a quick search for and turns out to be a piece of software that you run on your computer to download complete versions of someone’s website. Given that Barbelith contains nearly six hundred thousand posts across twenty five thousand threads (each paginating ever forty or so posts), this is not a small job. And given that the software is dragging down a bunch of pages each and every second, it’s not really a surprise that the MySQL server was having some trouble.

So I banned the user’s IP for a bit by adding a couple of lines to my .htaccess file and waited for the site to start working again. But no luck. Exploring the database through the PHPMyAdmin interface that Cal set up for me, I note that all the activity has resulted in one table in the database getting corrupted. So I dig around online a little longer, and work out how to login to MySQL directly through the Terminal and run a repair table command and hope for the best. It all seems to work. Everything’s back to normal. Cheers all around. I’m very proud of myself.

Except then half an hour later the site is down again. This time it’s so bad that people can’t even connect to my server at all. Every site that I run off the server is completely inaccessible to the outside world. and Barbelith stop working obviously, but also other little-known ventures like Everything in Moderation and bought-for-fun-after-seeing-a-Penny Arcade strip-and-maybe-taking-the-joke-a-little-to-excess are out of action. I can’t even ssh in to my server any more. I can’t send urgent support e-mails to my hosts, or receive replies to them. I am, to all intents and purposes, dead in the water.

I ring them up – half a world away – to find out what’s going on. They’re initially mystified – MySQL is running so hot it’s a wonder that the rack-mounts aren’t melting. When they try and login, the server basically falls over completely. A forced restart, and I hold my breath a little. When it comes back, they dig into the logs and it becomes immediately obvious to them what’s going on. Hundreds – thousands – of requests every minute for a file called mt-comments.cgi – the part of Movable Type that deals with incoming comments to my weblog. My entire site has been quite directly, and clearly spammed to death.

So I’ve had to make a short-term choice while I explore my options in more depth, between a site with no comments and no site at all – and I’m afraid the answer is no more comments, at least for the time being. I’d been thinking of looking into Akismet, but there’s simply no point. That still means that MySQL is going to be dealing with all this crap-peddling evil purpetrated by money-grubbing parasites, and that means regular meltdowns. I’ve come to wonder whether the problems I’ve had with MySQL errors on Barbelith over the last couple of years have been more to do with comment spam than anything else, and – while I want to make it clear that in no way do I blame Six Apart or Movable Type or anything and while I’m sure there’s a way out of this situation – it has started to feel like having the mt-comments.cgi script sitting on my server is like having a bullseye painted on my chest. In the meantime, any advice people have on how to deal with this kind of activity would be very much appreciated indeed. Would moving to Typekey authentication only help? Should I be looking into throttling on the server? Can anyone help? The e-mail address (I’m afraid) is tom at the name of this site – or you can write your own post and link to this one and I’ll find you via Technorati.